Thursday, February 25, 2010

Alien Righteousness, Humanity's Greatest Need


Dr. James Edward McGoldrick
One of the most prominent figures in the New Testament is the apostle Paul, a dynamic Christian missionary and the author of thirteen epistles, who had once been a distinguished Jewish rabbi. When he became acquainted with the claim of Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah, he initially reacted negatively and began persecuting people who believed in Jesus and accepted his claim to be the Christ (Messiah). Saul, as he was known then, strove earnestly to defend his ancestral religion against the teachings of Christ and his disciples, and he perceived correctly that the conflict between his own faith, and that of the Christians pertained to the pursuit of the righteousness that God requires for people to be acceptable to him. In his letter to the congregation at Philippi, Paul referred to his previous “zeal [for] persecuting the church,” and he identified his original religious affiliation as that of a devoted Pharisee, that is, one who sought to achieve personal righteousness through rigorous observance of rabbinical law. As a rabbi, Paul was satisfied that he had attained a “legalistic righteousness [that was] faultless” (3:4–6).

The Righteousness of God
When Saul sought righteousness, he was displaying a concern to be right with God, which is an appropriate and wholesome desire. God, in the Bible, has described himself as the perfectly righteous creator and ruler of heaven and earth, and he has often displayed severe displeasure toward people who failed to demonstrate righteousness in their own lives. When God threatened to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of the populace, Abraham pleaded for him to spare righteous people. Abraham asked, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). He understood that God always does right because righteousness is an attribute of the divine character. God is righteousness, pure and entire, so he is the standard by which to distinguish right from wrong.

Scripture and common practice associate righteousness with judgment and courts of law, which must enact righteous (just) judgments. After his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, Paul testified, “There is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me” (2 Timothy 4:8). Throughout the Bible believers expressed confidence in the righteousness of God and the justice of his judgments. He could never be wrong.

Abraham, Paul, and other biblical figures understood that the perfectly righteous God, who saved them from sin, demands righteousness from his human creatures. The Old Testament prophet Amos related that God insisted that the Hebrews “let justice roll on like a river, [and] righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). God requires obedience to his law, which Paul affirmed is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). In the words of Psalm 19,

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous (Psalm 19:7-9).

Failure to obey the laws, precepts, and ordinances of God is unrighteousness. Wrong belief and practice offend God and provoke his righteous anger and judgment, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Unrighteousness of Humanity
Humanity’s failure to meet God’s demand is obvious. Even people who assent to the divine law do not fulfill its requirements. God’s law commands perfect adherence. As Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The precepts of divine law are not ideals toward which only the most pious people aspire. They are legally binding statutes that everyone must obey. They are not options but obligations.

Failure to comply with God’s requirements leads to the application of his justice, which means imposing the penalties the law stipulates. His righteous character will not tolerate less than perfection. No religious exercises will compensate for failure. Religion without righteousness is an insult to God. To the very religious people of ancient Israel, people who were careful to discharge all their ceremonial duties, God said,

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never failing stream (Amos 5:21–24).

Scripture indicts the whole human race for failure to meet God’s requirements. The apostle Paul asserted, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). As surely as God punished Sodom and Gomorrah, he will inflict justice upon all sinners, for “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).

Even the best people have not and cannot satisfy God’s righteous demands. Paul, while still a rabbi, tried earnestly. He described his effort graphically:


If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is through faith (Philippians 3:4b–9).

Very few people have made efforts to gain righteousness comparable to those of Paul, and all who have done so have failed. One who tried was Martin Luther (1483-1546), the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, who was once a devoted monk. Luther adopted the monastic life in the hope of relieving himself of a burden of anxiety due to the knowledge of personal sin. He actually exceeded the rigors of self-denial his religious order required, but that did not bring him peace with God. On the contrary, realization of his own failures led him to despise God. Left to their own devices, sinners are always hopeless failures, especially when they attempt to achieve their own salvation.

The Alien Righteousness of Christ
One of the most pressing questions ever asked comes from one of the ancient books of the Bible. Job asked, “How can a mortal [man] be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2). The apostle Paul found the answer in the gospel of Christ. After describing his impressive achievements as a rabbi, he related how he obtained the righteousness he needed. To his friends in the church at Philippi he wrote:


I consider them [my attainments] rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Philippians 3:8-9).

In the gospel Paul discovered alien righteousness, which means the righteousness of another—in this case, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, is perfectly righteous. Of him God the Father said “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus pleased the Father because of his sinless perfection—his flawless righteousness. By active obedience to God, Jesus met all the divine requirements. He therefore could dare his critics by asking, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46). The sinless character of Christ made it appropriate for the apostle Peter to refer to him as a “lamb without spot or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

The righteousness of Christ is his by nature. It becomes an alien righteousness when sinners admit their failure to meet God’s demands and trust in Christ alone for forgiveness and eternal salvation. At that point the righteous God imputes, or accounts, the righteousness of his Son to the credit of believing sinners. Like Paul, at that instant, those who trust in Christ obtain the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:9).

To acquire the righteousness God demands, people must not look within themselves, for there is no salvation in self-esteem; nor may they depend upon their religious heritage or their personal religious performances. They need alien righteousness from Christ. Scripture affirms, “God made him [Jesus] . . . to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Imputation involves a two-fold transaction. Believing sinners obtain righteous standing before God when God imputes their sins to Christ and his righteousness to them.

The reception of Christ’s righteousness through faith is justification, which means legal acceptance with God based upon the active obedience of Christ in obeying the Father’s will and the Savior’s passive obedience in submitting to death upon the cross to pay the penalty for sin.

The same Paul who experienced this justification wrote about it extensively in his letter to the church at Rome, in which he contrasted the law, which demands perfect righteousness that sinners cannot achieve, and the gospel, which confers that righteousness as a gift to people whose most urgent need is to be right with God. Paul explained:


. . . no one will be declared righteous . . . by observing the law, rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice . . . at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies [declares righteous] those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:20–26).


Jesus Christ, by his sinless life and sacrificial death, has satisfied all of God’s demands and has paid the full penalty for believers who have within themselves no means by which to meet those demands. Devoid of personal righteousness, through faith (confident trust) in the Son of God, they receive his perfect alien righteousness.

In the sixteenth century the great theologian Martin Luther made the same discovery the apostle Paul had made centuries before. Luther, in fact, learned about justification through alien righteousness by making a methodical study of Paul’s writings. Like the apostle, Luther had striven to satisfy God by rigorous observance of religious rules. He became a monk in the hope of achieving the righteousness he sorely needed. In the letter to the church at Rome Luther found the truth of the gospel, the teaching of justification: “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Romans 1:17, RSV). Luther likened this discovery to being born all over again and experiencing paradise on earth. Thereafter he cited this doctrine as the article by which the church would stand or fall. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is the heart of the gospel, and it means that sinners, like Paul and Luther, must forsake all pretense to personal worthiness based upon their own works or merits and trust in the Son of God from whom alone they may obtain that alien righteousness, which is humanity’s greatest need.

Dear friend, perhaps through reading this essay, you, like millions of others, have realized your need of perfect righteousness in order to be right with God. If so, rejoice that the Spirit of God has made you aware of that need. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would minister after the Savior returned to heaven. When the Spirit comes, “He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). If the Spirit of God has convicted you, embrace the Christ of the gospel by faith and receive the alien righteousness, which is your greatest need.



Dr. James E. McGoldrick is the Professor of Church History at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is reprinted with permission from The Outlook, the journal of Reformed Fellowship, Inc., Janurary 2009.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Calvin: Theologian and Pastor


By Dr. James Edward McGoldrick


The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, was the most important development in church history since the apostolic age. Many people returned to biblical teachings long obscured or perverted in the Middle Ages. The foremost theologian of the Reformation was John Calvin (1509-64), whose five hundredth birthday we celebrated in 2009.
Calvin was born and educated in France, and he early demonstrated great intelligence and scholarly aptitude. His cousin Pierre Olivetan appears to have been a major influence persuading Calvin to embrace the Protestant faith. Calvin wrote, "God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame."[1] Olivetan was an able Bible scholar who assisted in translating the Scriptures into French. Calvin later improved that translation, and it became the basis for the Genevan Bible.
By the time of his conversion, Calvin had become a proficient scholar in classical literature and law—preparation which equipped him well to become a theologian. Perhaps because he was a rather shy person, Calvin became a reformer reluctantly. He went to Geneva in 1536 and met William Farel, a dynamic preacher, but one who was inept at organizing the reformation in that city. Farel demanded that his new friend join him in the ministry and pronounced a curse on Calvin's desire to pursue a quiet life in scholarship. The intimidated Frenchman complied, but in 1538 angry civil authorities expelled both of them. He returned in 1541 with serious reservations, but remained there as chief pastor of the Reformed Church until he died.
As he expected, enemies of the Reformation in Geneva continued to harass him, and years of struggle elapsed before he could free the church from state interference. He faced resistance to the moral reforms he promoted. Along with the other Reformers, John Calvin taught salvation by sovereign electing grace. This doctrine provoked stern opposition, as when Jerome Bolsec, a former monk, complained that Calvin's teaching made God responsible for evil. Bolsec was expelled from Geneva and later returned to Catholicism. He wrote a bitter diatribe which later biographers magnified to defame Calvin.[2]

Calvin the Biblical Theologian

By the time he arrived in Geneva, Calvin had already published his great work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this treatise, he accomplished something Luther never attempted: a systematic, integrated explanation of the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs.[3] From a rather modest beginning, the author expanded and revised his work several times, until in 1559 the final edition appeared in four substantial volumes.[4]
A careful reading of the Institutes shows Calvin's indebtedness to Luther and their mutual reliance upon Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the greatest thinker of the ancient church. Like Augustine, Luther and Calvin contended with entrenched ideas about salvation as a cooperative endeavor in which God and man make necessary contributions. The clarion call of the Reformers was sola gratia, sola fide: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone—and, of course, in Christ alone. Luther said of justification through faith alone, "On this article rests all we teach and practice."[5] Calvin called it "the main hinge on which religion turns."[6] Without this truth, there could be no gospel. Justification to Calvin meant "remission of sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness."[7] He considered the dispute over justification to be "the principal point of contention we have with the papists."[8] As one modern observer has remarked, "Reformation teaching on justification spoke with one voice.... On nothing were all the reformers more agreed."[9]
Calvin's doctrine of sin and salvation affirms universal human depravity and the sovereignty of divine grace. The Fall deprived sinners of genuine freedom, so their only hope for salvation lies in the unmerited favor of God. In contending with opponents of this doctrine, Calvin wrote The Bondage and Liberation of the Will in 1543, in which he praised Luther's earlier work, The Bondage of the Will (1525).[10]
As a champion of sola gratia, John Calvin wrote much about the means of grace—the Word of God and the sacraments, as well as prayer. He viewed the sacraments as signs and seals of gospel promises, visible indicators of God's favor toward his elect. In denying that baptism produces regeneration, he differed with Luther, but, like the German reformer, he urged Christians to think about their baptism often as a means to encourage their dependence upon divine love. He cited Acts 2:39 in support of infant baptism and maintained that elect children would come to Christ, and that the sacrament would avail to strengthen their faith in the Savior.[11]
In contrast to Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, who regarded the Lord's Supper as only a memorial of Christ's sacrifice, Calvin, like Luther, believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, although the nature of that presence is spiritual, not corporeal, as Luther maintained.
To Calvin, the bodily ascension of Jesus to heaven meant that his presence on earth must be spiritual, but those who receive the Supper in faith actually commune with the Savior in an inexplicable union to the nourishment of their souls.[12] Although Calvin's teaching on this subject did not satisfy Luther, the reformer of Wittenberg did not reject it acrimoniously, as he had done with the symbolism of Zwingli. When Luther read Calvin's Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord (1540), he rejoiced and concluded that, had the Zurichers read it earlier, disputes about the sacrament might have been avoided.[13]

Calvin the Pastoral Theologian

The major theme of Calvin's theology was always the glory of God. In his zeal to promote the divine glory, he demonstrated deep concern for human beings, God's image-bearers, whom he longed to enlist in the cause of reformation. The eternal and temporal well-being of people occupied his attention, for he understood he could do nothing for God directly, but could honor God by assisting others to know their Creator and to realize their obligations to love and obey him. As a scholar, he lectured to candidates for the ministry in Latin; but as a pastor, he preached in French to communicate with common people. To learned and unlearned parishioners alike, he proclaimed, "The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness."[14] He defined godliness as a "pure zeal which loves God as a real Father and looks up to him as a real Lord; it embraces his righteousness and detests offending him more than it does dying."[15]
To encourage the piety of God's people, their pastor taught them from Scripture, for he knew spirituality requires the truth of divine revelation as the basis for personal life and its healthful development. As the Holy Spirit leads Christians to accept sound teaching, that knowledge must regulate all of life. Even in his Institutes,Calvin sought to promote sincere piety as well as sound theology, and to demonstrate the connection between them.[16]
With sympathy and compassion, Calvin sought to help believers as they struggled with temptation in their quest for spirituality, that is, for "reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces."[17] Calvin recommended regular reading of Scripture as the principal means of progressing in sanctification. As the Holy Spirit creates faith in the Word of God, piety requires believers to organize their lives around Scripture, applying its teachings in all areas of their endeavors. They must participate in public worship to hear the Word expounded, and they must reinforce that with private study and meditation on biblical teachings.
Although John Calvin was a profound thinker, he was not a detached scholar who viewed learning as an end in itself or a means to satisfy one's intellectual interests. The knowledge of God's Word empowers Christians to resist temptation and to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as a caring pastor, strove to aid the saints in dealing with the obstacles to spirituality they confronted on a daily basis. A careful reading of his devotional writings continues to be a valuable resource, since modern believers face the same difficulties as their spiritual ancestors did in the era of the Reformation.[18]
Although detractors of John Calvin have often portrayed him as a cold, uncaring, authoritarian despot, he was actually a warmhearted pastor, deeply concerned for the spiritual and material needs of others. Many passages in the Institutes offer consolation for troubled believers. Calvin's letters also reflect his loving concern, especially for Protestants persecuted for their faith. When he learned about the slaughter of Protestants in France, he wrote, "I [am] worn out with sadness and not without tears, which so burst forth ... that they interrupt my words."[19] When a leader of the Huguenots faced death by burning, Calvin advised him to prepare for a wedding feast with Jesus.[20] This pastor-theologian knew how to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15), for the death of his wife and their only child taught him the meaning of personal sorrow.
To believers enduring various afflictions, the reformer of Geneva urged confidence in the sovereign providence of God, which provides opportunities to examine one's thoughts, in order to discover causes for divine chastisement. "All those who regard their troubles as necessary trials for their salvation not only rise above them but turn them into an occasion for joy."[21]
Portrayals of John Calvin as a self-absorbed "loner" are misleading, for he knew the value of friendship and cherished the fellowship of those who labored with him in the cause of reformation. When Theodore Beza, his closest associate in the ministry at Geneva, contracted bubonic plague, Calvin related that he was "weighed down with a load of grief," for he believed that Beza "loves me with more than a brother's love and reveres me as a father."[22] When the son of his friend M. de Richbourg perished in the plague, Calvin wrote to his grieving father, "I found myself so distracted and confused ... that for several days I could do nothing but cry."[23]
The Calvin of myth may appear as a man with a heart of ice and a countenance of stone, but the Calvin of history, while a brilliant intellectual, was also a sympathetic pastor and caring friend who loved God and loved others, who, in turn, loved him.
Five hundred years have elapsed since the birth of John Calvin, but his influence remains strong and continues to summon Christians to God-centeredness in principle and practice. Always aware of his own sinfulness and failures, Calvin understood clearly the meaning of salvation sola gratia, an indispensable truth if people are to enjoy the proper knowledge of God and of themselves. As they experience the saving grace of Christ, they must desire the divine glory in all areas of life, submitting to the authority of God's written Word. Calvin provided the appropriate prayer for such transformed souls in the statement that became his motto: "My heart I offer to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely."

Endnotes

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:xl.
[2] Helpful accounts of Calvin's struggles in Geneva appear in Albert Hyma, Christianity and Politics (Lippincott, 1938); J. Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms (Nelson, 1963); Phillip C. Holtrop, The Bolsec Controversy (Edwin Mellen, 1963).
[3] The first edition of Calvin's work is available in Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Eerdmans, 1975).
[4] Two excellent abridgments of Calvin's work are A New Compend of Calvin's Institutes, ed. H. T. Kerr (Westminster/John Knox, 1989), and Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Baker, 1987).
[5] Martin Luther, "The Smalkald Articles," in The Book of Concord, ed. T. G. Tappert et al. (Fortress, 1959), 292.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster, 1960), 3.11.1.
[7] Ibid., 3.11.2.
[8] Ibid., 3.19.11, n. 14.
[9] M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church (Eerdmans, 1982), 166.
[10] John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Baker, 1996).
[11] Calvin, Institutes, 2.3.5 and 4.15-16.
[12] Ibid., 4.17.32-33.
[13] Calvin's treatise is in Calvin's Selected Works: Tracts and Letters (reprint, Baker, 1983), 2:163-98. See B. A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New (T. & T. Clark, 1982), 287, n. 53.
[14] Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.2.
[15] John Calvin, Truth for All Time: A Brief Outline of the Christian Faith (Banner of Truth, 1998), 3. This summary of the first edition of the Institutes is a fine place to begin a study of Calvin.
[16] See Paul Chung, Spirituality and Social Ethics in John Calvin (University Press of America, 2000), 8.
[17] John Calvin, The Christian Life (Harper & Row, 1984), ix.
[18] See John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life (reprint, Baker, 2004) and John Calvin, Grace and Its Fruits: Selections from John Calvin on the Pastoral Epistles (Evangelical Press, 2000).
[19] Calvin, Calvin's Selected Works, vol. 4, letter of May 4, 1545.
[20] Richard Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin (reprint, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009), 90. This is an excellent account of Calvin as a tenderhearted pastor.
[21] John Calvin, Suffering—Understanding the Love of God (Evangelical Press, 2005), 30.
[22] Calvin, Calvin's Selected Works, vol. 5, letter of June 30, 1551.
[23] Quoted by Stauffer, Humanness of Calvin, 88.
The author teaches church history at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The second edition of his book, Luther's Scottish Connection, was recently published by Solid Ground Christian Books. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2009.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Church: A Covenant Community

By Mark A. Herzer

We live in a very curious age. We actually have to defend the importance of the local church, not from unbelievers but against those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ. The church has traditionally affirmed the statement in the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in…the holy catholic church" — but such a confession seems totally out of place in this day and age. Modern evangelicals denigrate the role and purpose of the "institutional" or visible church. We hear this constant refrain, "I'm a Christian but I don't go to church." This belief is played out in the way people loosely attach themselves to various churches. George Barna's research has shown that church growth has remained virtually stagnant in the past decade. He notes that there was no real discernable growth but only "a substantial degree of membership movement." In other words, a sort of "Chinese fire drill" has come into play among churches. Many will move from one church to another without the slightest qualm. Others simply do not associate with any particular church but still claim to be Christians. After all, if the church does not meet their immediate "needs" (i.e., "wants"), then they can either stop going to church altogether or simply go to a different one. To make matters worse, some Systematic Theologies do not even give a separate treatment to the doctrine of the church.

To make matters worse, the Roman Catholic Church has also unwittingly encouraged this tendency. Though quite strong in exalting the function and powers of the visible church, she has philosophically diminished her relevance through writers like Karl Rahner. Rahner believed in "anonymous Christians," viz., men and women are related to the church in their own way, though they are not members of any particular church (an issue of theological proximity to the church). Being a member of a church is preferable but not necessary. Even the decrees of Vatican II allow for pagans and various false religions to be somehow remotely related to the church without professing any faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.6 It is no wonder the church has fallen on hard times. From evangelicals who deny the importance of the church to Roman Catholics who deny an essential or dogmatic need for it, we are forced to reckon with what she is and why professing believers need to be united to her.

What is the Church?

The Church of Jesus Christ differs from all other institutions on the face of the earth. No other institution has been brought into being by the blood of Jesus Christ. No other institution has been granted enduring permanence through all the ages. No other organization is as loved and cherished as the church of Jesus Christ. Though derided by many, she is still the people of God, the precious bride of the Holy Lamb.

In fact, the church herself is a matter of faith. How so? Edmund Clowney's statement explains:

Because … the church is God's creation, not simply a human institution. It is different, even strange. The favourite fantasy of science fiction is true of the church: its members are aliens, even though they lack pointed ears. Their astral home is not another planet, but God's own heaven. It is not surprising that sociologists find the church rather puzzling. Even Christians have extraordinary difficulty in describing the church. Luther claimed that a girl of seven knows what the church is, but that he had to pen thousands of words in order to explain what she understood. The church is different because it is the born-again family of God, the assembly and body of Christ, the dwelling of the Spirit.

Reformers like Luther concurred. Luther argued that the church is in some sense an object of faith because some of the members of the visible church were mystically united to Christ and had genuine vital fellowship (communion) with each other and with Christ.

To believe all that the Bible says about the church takes a great measure of faith. How can she be holy when we hear of one scandal after another within her midst? How can she be the bride of Christ when we see so much impurity? How can she be the church of God when there are so many divisions and denominations? It indeed takes much believing faith to accept what God says about her. It is one thing to believe in God whom we cannot see, and quite another thing to believe so many lofty things about the mixed church which we do see. Our own eyes have beheld all her imperfections. It is for that reason we need to believe what God says about the church in his Word, as opposed to what we can see.

The church, as defined by so many divines, is the community of the saints or the faithful (communio sanctorum or communio fidelium). She is Christ's body and His spouse. Yet, "if the church rather than Christ becomes the centre of our devotion, spiritual decay has begun. A doctrine of the church that does not centre on Christ is self-defeating and false. But Jesus said to the disciples who confessed him, 'I will build my church.' To ignore his purpose is to deny his lordship."10 This we must always remember whenever we study this important topic. There is always the danger of overreacting to the problems in ecclesiology by overemphasizing the church's importance. With that in mind, we can approach this study on two fronts.

I wish to deal with two major points in this paper. One is the necessity of membership in the visible church. The second is the priority of election in the visible church. The two are quite related. The first develops the need for membership in the visible church and the second addresses the status of members in the visible church. The first point argues against the modern disdain for the visible church and the second answers the question of presumptive regeneration and the purists' notions of the visible church. One group seems to say that you don't need the church at all to be a faithful Christian while another group seems to argue that you know you are a Christian because you are in the visible church. Both of these positions, we believe, are wrong.

Read complete article, with footnote documentation (PDF).

Ten Things Every Student of History Should Know and Remember


By Dr. James McGoldrick
Professor of Church History
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary


  1. God has commanded the study of history (Deuteronomy 6), so this discipline is not an option, but an obligation for believers to pursue.
  2. Christ is a genuine historical person, and the Christian faith has its basis in facts, not in myths. This makes Christianity distinctively superior to other religions.
  3. God controls history through his providential supervision of all peoples, all things, and all events (Psalm 103:19).
  4. Only a Christian perspective on history offers hope for the future. All humanistic and naturalistic interpretations lead necessarily to despair because they have no eternal frame of reference.
  5. All theology is historical theology. God did not reveal His will in one event. He chose instead to do so through numerous events and by inspiring many writers over centuries of time. No one can understand and apply Scripture correctly who does not do so by means of a historical method of interpretation.
  6. All events have causes, primary and secondary causes. God's sovereign decrees are the primary cause, and human and material factors are secondary causes. Secondary causes have validity and significance because they accomplish God's primary cause as He has decreed.
  7. Without a believing study of history, people cannot know where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going. This knowledge is available only through God's revelation of Himself, which took place in history.
  8. The use of historical evidences requires scrupulous honesty, or the misuse of such evidences will produce propaganda.
  9. An intelligent grasp of the present requires a substantial knowledge of the past, for the best way to examine reality is in terms of its causes.
  10. It is impossible to construct and maintain a biblical world view without reference to history, which is the arena of activity in which God is at work composing the City of God, which is the goal of history.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Curriculum Review

By Dr. Benjamin Shaw
Associate Professor - Hebrew and Old Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Over the past two years, under the direction of the Board of Trustees, the Faculty at GPTS has reviewed the curriculum. There was some consideration given at the beginning of the process to perhaps move away from a four-year program to a three-year program. However, as the faculty reviewed course evaluations and exit interviews with graduates, we realized that such a move would not suit either the needs of our students or the needs of the Seminary. The result of the process was a re-vamping and fine-tuning of the curriculum, but with no change in the number of hours needed for graduation.

The primary changes made to the curriculum are as follows: In the Old Testament Department, Beginning Hebrew Exegesis has become Exegesis of Hebrew Narrative, while Advanced Hebrew Exegesis has become Exegesis of Hebrew Poetry and Prophecy. This is really a change in name to reflect more accurately the content of the courses. In the New testament Department, Greek Exegesis I focuses on the Gospels and Acts, whereas Greek Exegesis II deals with the Epistles and Revelation.

The Historical Theology Department remained untouched. In the Systematic Theology Department, the course that was formerly Ecclesiology & Polity has been divided. There is now a two-hour course entitled Ecclesiology. The polity portion of the course has been moved to the Applied Theology Department, and combined with the study of Robert's Rules of Order, and church offices under the name “Polity, Robert's Rules, and Church Offices.""

In Applied Theology, Christian Education and Evangelism have been combined into one course, and Missions has become a course in its own right. (In the previous Catalog, Evangelism & Missions were combined in one course separate from Christian Education.) Also in Applied Theology, we have added the course Reformed Spirituality, which will be taught by Dr. Carrick. The faculty considered that given the divergent views of “spirituality” in our day, such a class was necessary, particularly in helping our students in their own spiritual development.

Finally, two new courses have been added to the Apologetics & Ethics portion of the Curriculum. The first is Islam, which will be taught by Dr. Anees Zaka of Church Without Walls in Philadelphia. The faculty was strongly of the opinion that such a course, as a required course, is a necessary part of seminary training, considering our current situation. The second new course is Christianity and Its Competitors, which will be taught by Dr. McGoldrick. In essence, it is a critique of the cults, well-informed by church history as well as theology.

These changes, which have been approved by the Board, will go into effect with the Fall 2010 Semester, further strengthening what we believe to be already one of the strongest seminary curricula available.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Benefits of Knowing Greek

By Dr. Sid Dyer
Associate Professor, Greek & New Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
A minister is called by God to preach His Word. Yet, few preachers do this as fully they should. God's Word was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translations are the Word of God only to the extent that they agree with the original text.1 Because translations are the work of fallible men, a minister who does not know the original languages is incapable of determining to what extent a passage he preaches from agrees with the original text. There is no such thing as a 100 percent accurate version of the Bible. A.T. Robertson points out that
...there is much that cannot be translated. It is not possible to reproduce the delicate turns of thought, the nuances of language, in translation. The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract.2

Thus, in order to be a reliable interpreter of the Scriptures, a minister must know the original languages. This does not mean that a minister who does not know the original languages is disqualified from preaching. It means that one who does know them is much more qualified and therefore truer to his call.

A preacher should seek to learn the precise meaning of the words as they are used in a particular biblical text. For example, Paul commands us in Galatians 6:2, according to some English translations, to "bear one another's burdens."3 But in verse 5, in these translations, he writes, "For every man shall bear his own burden." In these English translations, this seems like a contradiction. But different Greek words are both translated "burden." The word in verse 2 refers to an excessive load and the one in verse 5 refers to a normal load. Paul's teaching is that each man is to bear a normal load, but if the circumstances of his life become overwhelming, we are to help him.

Many preachers limit themselves to the study of words only. But, understanding grammatical constructions provides important insight to the interpretation of a passage. For example, the Greeks had two ways of expressing a prohibition. In one construction, an action already being practiced is forbidden. In the other, an action not yet being practiced is forbidden. In Romans 6:12, Paul uses the first construction. Thus, the precise meaning is: "Stop letting sin reign in your mortal body." It is also important to understand the subordination of clauses. Acts 20:32 reads:
And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

The first "which" has two possible antecedents in the English, either “word” or “grace.” Since the closest possible antecedent is “grace,” that seems to be the likely choice. However, the case agreement in the Greek between “which” and “word” rather than between “which” and “grace,” shows that it is the “word,” rather than “grace,” that edifies and gives an inheritance.

The Greeks had various ways of expressing emphasis which are difficult to translate into English. When the author deviates from normal word order, he is expressing emphasis. This is particularly true of words that are placed at the beginning of a clause. For example, in Galatians 2:20 the emphasis is on Christ, because the Greek reads "with Christ I am crucified."

Ministers need to strive for proficiency in Greek. James L. Boyer, a Greek professor, states:
...the best preparation for proper Biblical exegesis, particularly in matters of semantics, the meaning of words, including both lexical and grammatical study, is the widest possible experience with and constant practice in the use of the original languages. One dare not look up a word in the analytical lexicon, discover it is a verb in the aorist tense, turn to the aorist section of Dana and Mantey, then say, "The original Greek says so and so."5

What Boyer is saying is that a bare knowledge of the original languages is inadequate. The focus of so many seminaries is practical theology, and training in the languages is reduced to being able to use helps. But, one cannot be sure that the language helps he uses are always accurate. Even, sorry to say, a scholar of the caliber of A. T. Robertson is not always correct. For example, he mistook the active infinitive of "sympathize" in Hebrews 4:15 as passive.6

Kenneth Wuest teaches that "falling away" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to the rapture.7 This is the same word from which "apostasy" is derived. The Greeks used this word for such negative concepts as defection, revolt, and forsaking a god.8 In Deuteronomy 24:1, the Septuagint uses this word for divorce. It is also used for divorce in Matthew 19:7 and Mark 10:4. Surely a term loaded with such negative connotations would not be used to refer to the Church's ascension to Christ at His coming.

Fritz Rienecker's A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament contains too many errors be regarded as reliable.9 It is difficult to determine if the errors are the result of poor scholarship, translation, or editing. Despite its numerous mistakes, it does have an abundance of useful material, but anyone using this work should exercise caution.

John Brown of Haddington, born in 1722, was the greatest preacher and theologian of Scotland in his day. At the age of 16, he stepped into a book store and asked for a Greek New Testament. Some professors had also entered the store, and one of them told John that if he could read it, he would pay for it. John took the New Testament, and to the astonishment of all in the store, he read a passage. He walked out of the store with his gift. Young John Brown had taught himself Greek by comparing a borrowed copy of the Greek New Testament to English and Latin translations. He created his own Greek lexicon and his own Greek grammar by comparing Latin word endings with Greek word endings. He later learned Hebrew. Young John Brown’s zeal for the Word of God was manifested by his desire to learn the original languages. Every minister today should have a similar zeal.
1 There is also some Aramaic in the Old Testament.
2 The Minister and His Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977), 17.
3 All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.
5 "Semantics in Biblical Interpretation," Grace Journal 3 (1962): 33.
6 Word Pictures in the New Testament, (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press,1932), V, 365.
7 The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), 486.
8 Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 219.
9 ed. Cleon L. Rogers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).